Lebanon – Day 4: Cedars of God

Before you read this post, please know that climate change is killing the Cedars of Lebanon.   There is a very good possibility that these once timeless behemoths will meet their end all due to us.

Today we used a guide I found on Reddit.   His name was Kamal Abi Karam and he is an adventure guide who works in Oman.  He is Lebanese and spends the summer months in Lebanon.   I’ve visited the Kadisha valley before.  It is considered a UNESCO World Heritage site.  This valley is a place where Christian (specifically Maronite) monks hid from foes in the past.  Every time some US politician (cough … republicans) talks about Christians under attack in America, they should hear the stories of these people. Hell, in 517 these monks contacted Pope Hormisdas saying “hey, these other Christians are trying to kill us. Help.” Tales as old as time.

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Photo Credit: Josh Ferris

We stopped the van for some photos and took a small hike to the monastery of Deir Mar Elisha.  There is an icon of St. Elisha from the 8th century in it.  Most of the monasteries in the valley are only accessible by hiking, but this one has a small road and parking lot.

The Cedars of God are in Bsharri and they are one of the last forests of the ancient Lebanese cedars.  In the forest, there are trees that are more than 2500 years old.  You can walk amongst the trees for a small donation.   It’s a really wonderful and tranquil place. You are quite literally walking in a village of endangered species.  One should feel honored to be with those trees and I savored every moment.  There is a very real possibility that this forest may not be here in the near future. If you go, please stay on the path.  This forest is extremely fragile and the work to care for it is boundless.

After the forest, we headed for lunch. Cedar Heaven in Bcharre is where I finally ate the famous kibbeh zgharta. First, the restaurant.   Cedar Heaven is the beautiful outdoor restaurant near a cliffside overlooking the valley.    It’s shaded, cool, and there is a small breeze.   It is a spectacular view.

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Ok, now let me explain kibbeh zgharta.  A shell is made by mixing meat and bulgur and then that shell is stuffed with fat and a little meat.   This entire concoction is then grilled and or baked.    You are served one (big) kibbeh, and when you cut into it the hot fat flows onto the plate.   It is delicious and incredibly unhealthy.  This type of kibbeh is only made in this town, and it is quite rare, even in Lebanon.

IMG_4962When we returned, a few of us went to Maria and Edward’s house to: see the kids, enjoy the sunset, and of course, eat.  They are great hosts.  I worked hard to buy the affection of the kids with the remaining gifts from the United States. The painting set probably caused a lot of agita.  It was a fun night of hanging out with loved ones and enjoying their hospitality.

Next – Lebanon – Day 5: Tyre and Sidon

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Lebanon – Day 3: Beqaa Valley

Today is the day when our group is complete.  Two more people arrived from an extended layover in England and got to Broumanna at 5 AM.   At 8:30 we loaded into the van and headed to the mighty Baalbeck in the Beqaa Valley.

We stopped to get some man’oushe on the way. Have I talked about man’oushe yet? Basically, the Lebanese eat pizza for breakfast. They call it flatbread, but it’s basically pizza. I like mine 50/50 (Mona taught this to me.) You get half za’atar,  half cheese and then you fold the whole thing over and eat it. It’s very good.

This is my second time visiting Baalbeck.    It’s as impressive the second time as it is the first.   Unfortunately, the columns of the Temple of Jupiter are currently covered in scaffolding.   They are going through a restoration process. Our guide was someone that our driver knew.   He was ok.  There was nothing bad about him (he was better than guide I had on my first visit to Baalbeck), but he was more into telling jokes than digging deep into the history of the site.   He was the complete opposite of the guide we had in Petra.

Photo Credits: Josh Ferris, Spencer McGee, Samer Badr

We had a lunch of sfiha baalbeck at a restaurant called Lakis Farms.   This place serves ayran on tap! Sfiha is one of my favorite Lebanese foods.   They are these delicious little meat pies served fresh from the oven.   It’s like an open-faced pizza roll, but 1,000,000 times better than that.   The best I’ve ever had were in the town of Baalbeck and I would happily return to eat them there again.

The rest of the day was a departure from our itinerary. We had expected to do wine tasting in 3 vineyards near Zahle. They were: Château Nakad, Château Ksara, & Domaine Wardy.  On Friday, we found out that Domaine Wardy was closed on Sundays, but Samer’s aunt Mimi insisted on helping us.   She knew Mr. Khalil Wardy and made a call. The winery was happy to accommodate our schedule.

We arrived at about 2:30 and were pleasantly surprised to find a giant tent set up, 2 Wardy siblings, and a bottle of every wine they make!  That is 12 bottles and we tried everyone one of them.

I particularly liked: Beqaa Valley Red (2017), Beqaa Valley Rosé (2018), Sauvignon Blanc (2018), and the Arak Wardy. I found the Obeidi (2016) to be one of the most peculiar wines that I’ve ever tasted. I brought a bottle back, just so that I could try it at home one more time. I need to figure out what food to enjoy it with in the future. The obeidi grape is the local grape that is used to make arak.

 

In addition to wine, the Wardy’s are making vodka and arak.   Did we sample those?  Yes, yes we did.   We left the Wardy family around 6:30.   We stopped by the Berdawni River in Zahlé for ice cream. It’s a beautiful walk along a river.  I am not sure about everyone else, but I was drunk from the wine and soundly slept all the way home after ice cream.

Next – Lebanon – Day 4: Cedars of God

Lebanon – Day 2: Beirut

Samer went to the airport to pick up Melissa. Spencer, Holly(s), and I took a taxi into Beirut.   We were all meeting for a tour with Alternative Tour Beirut.  Our guide’s name was Aya Jamorabon Rafeh.   This a wonderful walking tour through Beirut, that juxtaposes class access to the city, organic vs. unplanned urban development, and the evolution of the ever-changing Beirut.  Aya is a very good guide that I would eagerly recommend to anyone.

I thought she did a wonderful job presenting the complexities of the civil war and was very fair.  I’ve been reading about the war for 8 years now, and I still find it completely mind-boggling.   The only time, that I thought she was less than neutral was a brief moment when she told of the assassination of Rafik Hariri.  He was Lebanon’s internationally popular billionaire prime minister who was murdered by a car bomb in 2005.   Many loved him.   Many loathed him. Sam’s dad worked for him and loathed the corruption in the government, others considered it the price to jumpstart Lebanon after the war.  Our guide clearly had a soft spot for him.

Who killed Rafik Hariri? Was it the Syrians, Israel, Hezbollah, Hamas, and/or someone else?  We may never know.   There is a strong likelihood that it is not black and white.   Maybe rogue members of Hezbollah carried out the assassination with the support of the Syrian intelligence community.  At this point, that idea is mere speculation. The one definite consequence was the creation of a Hariri political dynasty now being led by his less politically sophisticated son.

Photo Credit: Josh Ferris

After the tour, Samer and Joe insisted upon showing us “nice” Beirut.  We stopped into a church, walked past the Parliament and Grand Serail (the office of the Prime Minister), snapped photos at the clock tower, and escaped the heat at an expensive hotel bar.   Nice Beirut means the prices are 10x higher than normal Beirut.  We were all pretty tired, so we returned to Broummana to relax.

We had dinner on Chafica’s balcony and then explored the neighborhood a little bit. Ee ended up at a ridiculously over the top bar called Cicada. My cocktail was served to me in a smoke-filled chamber. Also, on the walk home, we spotted the infamous traffic police in short shorts. When asked about this insane policy, the mayor famously said,

“We want to show that we have the same way of life as the West. You wear shorts and we wear shorts. We have democracy. Our women are free.”

This man will be sorely disappointed if he ever sees what female Philadelphia traffic police are expected to wear.

Next – Lebanon – Day 3: Beqaa Valley

Jordan – Day 7: Good-bye / Lebanon – Day 1: Hello!

We did not have a lot of time in Amman, so we packed our bags and visited Souk Jara right when it opened.  This is a great outdoor market filled with art, trinkets, and food.   I tried my weight in jam and za’atar while we visited.   I bought this really good black seed paste made from habbatul-barakah.  It reminds me of sweet tahini.   I’ll be having it on toast in the near future. We did try to buy some coffee at the market, but the guy with an espresso machine seemed to have never used it.  We waited for about 5 minutes and told him that we’d pass.

We made our way down the hill and to the ancient Roman Theatre.  We were running short on time, so we did not stay long.   The Romans loved their theaters and this one was massive.   It’s bigger than the theater in Jerash, though not as well preserved.   The theater was built when the city was stilled called Philadelphia (why change it?!?!).  We took a taxi back to the Airbnb and loaded up the van one last time.

Google maps are not quite as accurate abroad as it is in the USA.   Sam was driving and we found ourselves going the wrong way down a one-way street.   We got to the airport, blew some leftover dinar in duty-free and settled into the lounge.  The Royal Jordanian lounge is not particularly amazing, but we weren’t there for long before we boarded our direct flight to Beirut.

When we landed in Lebanon and the guys in passport control were more than annoying. First, they asked us the address where we were staying.   Guess what?  That’s a trick question because Lebanon doesn’t really have street addresses.  I told them “Madame Chafica Badr’s house near the Liban Post in Broummana.”   That answer sufficed, but Holly B. was at a different guy.  Samer circled back to help her, and then the passport guy had the audacity to hand Holly B.’s passport to Samer!   This is not a good look Lebanon.

Our driver was waiting for us and took us to Samer’s house in the Broummana.  Broummana is a summer resort town east of downtown Beirut and up on Mount Lebanon.   The climate is cool, so people come up during the summer to beat the heat.   Samer and his family have been doing that every summer for as long as he can remember.

Of course, Samer’s mom showered all of with a feast on the first night.   We ate, drank wine, visited family, and all went to bed fairly early.   Week 2 of vacation was just begining.

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Next – Lebanon – Day 2: Beirut

Jordan – Day 6: Jerash & Amman

We woke up on the Dead Sea and drove to the ancient Roman city of Jerash.  Jerash had not originally, been on our itinerary, but we decided to sacrifice time in Amman to see it.   I am very glad we did.

I really enjoyed the guide we hired from the site office.   He had been leading tours in Jerash since the 70s. He was old and nimble, he almost floated through the ruins.  He carried a stick to point at things and there was soothing percussive nature to the way it tapped the cobblestone as he moved.   He was a delight.

The ruins of Jerash are the best-preserved Roman ruins outside of Italy.  The forum and theater are incredibly impressive.  The acoustics of the theater are fantastic.  You can be speaking outside the center of the theater, step into the center, and instantly hear your voice fill the space. It’s wildly impressive. The forum and the cardo are lined with columns which give the entire site an impressive and imperial look.   The structures of Baalbeck are more grandiose, but as a whole site, Jerash is phenomenal.

 

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Photo Credits: Samer Badr, Spencer Mcgee, Josh Ferris

We were famished and did not think an hour drive back to Amman was a great idea while we were hungry and tired.   We walked across the street and found an air-conditioned fast food joint called Cheesy Grill.  It was comically bad.   The first sandwich we ordered was unavailable, so they made these chicken, American cheese, sweet mayo monstrosities.   Megan’s verbal review was “this is disgusting.” We named these sandwiches cheesy blasters after the 30 Rock joke, filled up on fries, some Syrian sweets from the neighboring shop and got back to the car.

Our Airbnb was on Khirfan Street and was very nice.  It was right in the center of a pretty hip neighborhood.  After we settled and showered, we treated ourselves to a drink at Books at Cafe.   This bar/cafe is the first overtly queer-friendly place I saw in Jordan.  It was nice to walk into a place with “Equality Matters” slogans littered about. We shared a Jordanian Rose wine, that would have been better if it had been served chilled.

We ended the night with a traditional Jordanian meal at Sufra. The quality of food on this day of the trip really ran the gamut.   This food was delicious.  We sat in an outdoor courtyard in the back of an old house.   There was a fountain at the center and it was lined with lots of plants.   It was a fantastic scene.   I do not remember everything that we ordered, but Hayan and Samer figured it out for us.   This was the first time we had the famous Jordanian meal of mansaf.    Mansaf is meat, rice, and yogurt sauce.   It’s not bad, but nothing I’d seek out in the future.

At the end of the meal, our group split up.  We said good-bye to Megan and Hayan, and we went back to go to bed.   I fell asleep instantly, but Holly F., Samer, and Spencer enjoyed the balcony overlooking Amman.

Next – Jordan – Day 7: Good-bye / Lebanon – Day 1: Hello!

Jordan – Day 5: Petra & a dip in the Dead Sea

We decided to go to Petra really early.   We wanted to beat the 100 degrees (F) heat, so we met our guide at 6:15 am at our hotel.  We were leaving before the free hotel breakfast was set out, so Holly asked them to wrap us up something to go.   We grabbed our packed breakfasts and entered Petra.

Our guide was named Zeid, tourism was the family business, and he was all about business.  He moved fast and talked along the way. There was very little small talk. He was particularly annoyed when Hayan and Holly B. befriended a stray dog near the gate.   Every guide has their own style.

It was very helpful to have a guide as he showed us the remnants of sculptures and other things we missed the day before in the siq (canyon.)  Additionally, this was the first real explanation of the Nabataean society that I received. Samer was excited to ask him is Fairuz’s Queen of Petra play was accurate.   You can imagine Samer’s shock when this young Jordanian man did not know about the famous Lebanese singer’s play.  We deduced there is nothing real about the play.

Petra was as breathtaking as it was the day before.  The treasury is a fantastic reveal coming out of the canyon and it lived up to my expectations.   I was truly in awe when I stood in front of it.   The rest of the complex is quite impressive, but that first moment is one to revel in.

Now, I must confess something.   I think I broke a traveler’s golden rule: always be a responsible traveler.    The largest building at Petra is not the treasury, it’s the monastery.   It’s 850 steps up the side of the mountain, and it was already hot by 9 AM.    I succumbed to exhaustion and hired a mule to carry me up the steps to the monastary.

Peta published an exposé a year ago on how terribly the animals are treated.  I am really thankful for the ride to the monastery, but I know that I was being terribly lazy.   The mules go up the side of the mountain in less than 20 minutes.  Normally, I would not have elected to do this, but our trusted guide suggested we do it.   That (false) assurance was enough for me to jump on the mule and go.

If you decide to do this, negotiate precisely what you want to do with the mules.   We told the mule owner that we wanted to go one-way and we’d discuss more.  He was under the impression we wanted to use the mule’s more and we got stuck paying him more for a ride out of Petra later, that no one really wanted to take. Karma eventually struck and during my walk down from the monastery, my knee started to hurt. It made the descent miserable.

Once we got to the top of the 850 steps we arrived at the monastery and the “best view in the world” outpost.  The facade of the monastery is so big that it is hard to capture with a camera.   Simply put, it is massive.  We were unable to enter it, but I understand it is a single chamber.  This was probably not a monastery, but a temple honoring a dead Nabatean king.

While you are looking at the monastery, directly behind you is a path to an overlook claiming to be the best view in the world.   There is a man with a tent, where you can relax and enjoy the view of Wadi Araba below.    It’s quite nice and was a great way to beat the heat.

I don’t like telling stories that are not mine, but I’ll make an exception this time.   The group split for an hour.  One group took the mules to a very high point in Petra to be able to look down on the treasury.   While they were on the mules, a snake came out of the brush and onto the trail.   Holly F. reports that a guide jumped from his mule, pulled out a whip, and killed the snake with the whip! Others thought it was a machete, but Holly and Spencer both assure me it was a whip (Indiana Jones style).

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The “new” road.

Before we left our guide, we told him where we were going to stay at the Dead Sea.   He gave us directions that would not yet be on google maps because it’s a new road.  He told us the views were marvelous.  All we had to do was take a left at Abu Huimel Coffee Shop near Little Petra and take this “new” road all the way to the Jordan Valley Highway (road 65).  The road went up and over the mountains, through the desert, and finally to the highway.    It was one of the most terrifying roads any of us have ever been on.  Along the edge of the rail-less road were road signs with prayers in Arabic saying “God is Great.” and  “Ask God for forgiveness.”

The Dead Sea

We stayed at the Al Mujib Chalets on the Dead Sea.   Originally, I thought that we’d leave Petra later than we did, so I opted for us to skip the more resort-style hotels on the northern end of the Dead Sea.  This hotel was closer to Petra.  Al Mujib Chalets are little cabins in Mujib Biosphere Reserve with access to the Dead Sea.   They are simple, you get breakfast, and there is a nice communal dinner offered as well.  Oh, and the air conditioner works really well.

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Photo Credit: Josh Ferris

I confirm that the Dead Sea is one of the weirdest sensations you will ever feel.    It feels as though the sea does not want you in it and is constantly trying to expel you.   You really float … a lot.  The salt content is unbelievable.   The Dead Sea burns everything; my scrapes, my cuts, my ass, and even my dick! The whole thing is a burning, bouncy, out of this world experience.   I accidentally got some water in my eye and was convinced I’d gone blind.    This description paints a fairly horrific picture, but I loved swimming in the Dead Sea.   One must do it.

Next – Jordan – Day 6: Jerash & Amman

Jordan – Day 4: Drive to Petra (and a visit to Little Petra)

We woke up in the middle of the desert and slowly discovered what the landscape around us looked like.  Salman drove us back to the camp for breakfast where we washed up and a few tried fresh camel milk.   We said thank you to everyone and started our drive to Petra.

We did not have a lot on our agenda that day.   All we needed to do was drive to Siq al-Barid (Little Petra) and then make our way to our hotel.  On the drive to Petra, we stopped at a souvenir shop that touted the claim of “we have the third-best view of the world.”  It was a nice view, but the claim made us laugh.    The shop was fairly expensive, but we had a cup of coffee, enjoyed the view, and Spencer and I played a game of chess on a $2000 set (it included chairs.)  I lost.

As we drove through the town of Wadi Musa, Hayan got a serious craving (a hankering, if you will) for knafeh.   Knafeh is a Middle Eastern dessert that is baked cheese with a crust and then syrup poured on it.  It is wildly decadent.  The Lebanese have taken it one step further down the path of gluttonous absurdity and they’ve stuffed it in a piece of bread.   It’s some sort of ancestor to the disgusting stuffed crust pizza in the United States.  We convinced Hayan to wait until after lunch and we first went to Little Petra.

Siq al-Barid is a nice introduction to Nabataean architecture.   The Nabataeans carved these great cities out of the sandstone cliffs.    None are extremely deep, but they are abundantly impressive.  Little Petra will take you an hour to explore.  The heat is oppressive and it’s small compared to Petra.   There is a pretty view at the end, which most of us skipped.   We were tired, hot, and hungry.

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Siq al-Barid Photo Credit: Josh Ferris

We made our way back to Wadi Musa for lunch at Bukhara and dessert at the place across the street.  I recommend Bukhara.  I had a very good kofta sandwich, but their specialty is chicken.  Megan had their chicken dish and really enjoyed it.  A kid was working there, who (let’s ignore the child labor for a moment) came up to us at the end of the meal and totally asked up to review them on TripAdvisor.   His entrepreneurial forwardness made me smile.

After dessert, we all went to the hotel to shower and relax.    We stayed at the
Petra Guest House, which I thought was a great hotel that is very close to the main gate to Petra.   Half of our group decided to take a nap and enjoy the air conditioner.   Holly(s), Spencer, and I decided to go to see a little bit of Petra.

Petra Map

We made our way through the canyon (Siq), past the treasury (!!) and to the Nabataean theater. Petra, I went to Petra.   It’s really incredible.   I loved it.   Walking through the canyon is a wonderful experience.  The Nabataeans clearly had a flair for the dramatic.   It’s 1200 meters long with twists and turns.   We were there late in the day, so there were not a lot of people.  I’ll write more about Petra in the next post, but seeing something that blew my mind as a kid watching Indiana Jones really was delightful.

We all met up at the hotel bar to eat some mediocre bar food to chit chat.  The bar was in an old cave, and it had a cool look to it.   We ordered some Petra brand beers and a pizza that took quite a bit of time to make.   When we decided to order another pizza, the waiter told us that there were no more pizzas possible.

Oh well.

Next – Jordan – Day 5: Petra & a dip in the Dead Sea